What is it that makes the Jews a people? Rashi asked that question in 11th century France in the very first comment of his Torah commentary. The first verse of Genesis describes the creation of the universe, but Rashi asks should it not have been a verse from our portion this week where
God addresses the whole community of Israel, Exodus 12:2, “this month [the month of Nisan containing Pesach] shall be for you the beginning of the months”?
As Jewish observances have progressed over the millennia we have come to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Tishri as the beginning of the year but we still count the order of our festivals starting from Pesach.
Rashi’s point is that as Torah is the guidance document of the Jewish people, should it not begin with the first guidance given to us as a whole people? I have recently had a remarkable experience of Jewish peoplehood. Due a sabbatical from my work at Alyth Synagogue in London, I answered an advert from Temple Israel in Cape Town, for a rabbi to come to South Africa as sabbatical cover for their Rabbi Greg Alexander. The community offered me the opportunity and I joined the Temple Israel team of three Rabbis at Simchat Torah. I am just now returning to London after three delightful and fulfilling months.
Over these months I have been able to bring programmes and ways of invigorating a Jewish community in London to Cape Town and have been surprised by how, with a little adaptation, they have worked so well here. We are truly a worldwide family, a people indeed. We share the songs and music of our people – I have heard Jeff Klepper and Dan Freelander’s Shalom Rav sung with joy and ruach on Shabbat evening in Cape Town, Kerch in the Crimea, Ohel Avraham in Haifa and Beit Warszawa in Warsaw, as well as at home in London. We share Jewish concerns and thirst for learning, Alyth’s Talmud Class and “Godwrestling” home study groups were full of the same spirit of debate, questioning and respectful, non-judgemental appreciation of each other’s ideas in Cape Town as in London. We share a Progressive Jewish willingness to push the boundaries of Jewish spirituality: Kavannah Yoga in London is perhaps more mellow and reserved than the dance based version that developed while I have been here in Cape Town, but underneath was the search for God “in this place.” I had to get used to calling a ‘Challah’ a ‘Kitke’ and whilst on Mitzvah Day in November in the UK we shiver in the first cold of the British winter, here in Cape Town on the same day we had to be careful not to dehydrate in the sun – so there are differences, and cultural challenges aplenty adding to the richness of the experience.
There was something else very special about my experience at Temple Israel. It reflects Moses’ response in Parashat Bo to Pharaoh’s courtiers’ offer after the eighth plague of locusts: “Let their notable men go to worship the Eternal their God.” Moses refuses the offer: “No one will go unless we all go – young and old and all of our sons and daughters, for we must observe the Eternal’s festival together.” (Exodus 12:7-9)
In Temple Israel, Cape Town, as in Alyth in London and in Progressive synagogues around the world you see that we carry this heritage forwards. Our peoplehood is open to all to participate in. At Temple Israel you worship and learn with people whose families have a heritage of millennia of
Judaism and also with people of all races of the Rainbow Nation, who have discovered Judaism in this generation and converted or are, for now, accompanying our people in our search for God. So, too, in Alyth, in multicultural London, there are members of the Shul of a vast variety of family
backgrounds. Men and women, children and adults, born Jews and Jews by choice, all are brought together as equal participants and of equal value in the building of Judaism.
The World Union for Progressive Judaism, being the largest single uniting body of Judaism on God’s earth, can offer a fantastic opportunity for Rabbis and members of congregations to refresh their Jewish enthusiasm. Perhaps the World Union office in Jerusalem could offer a brokerage service to enable Rabbis to temporarily serve each others’ congregations making for Sabbaticals which give them the opportunity to grow by reflecting on their practice, studying in a new environment and sharing their ideas and ways of bringing Judaism alive across the planet as they exchange congregational roles for a short time. For every World Union member, of course the website gives you contact details for every congregation in every country so that visiting for Shabbat or any other occasion is very easy.
Parashat Bo ends with the command to, “explain to your child on that day” the story of the Passover (Exodus 13:8). It is the beginning of the Jewish duty to pass our tradition on to future generations wherever and in whatever circumstances we may live. Being part of Temple
Israel as it approaches its seventieth year of existence, seeing how its three local congregations inspire Jewish life across the beautiful city of Cape Town has shown me that Progressive Judaism, wherever it grows, tells our story to great effect.
About the Author:
Rabbi Mark Goldsmith serves congregation Alyth, North Western Reform Synagogue, London, and Chair of the Assembly of Reform Rabbis UK, Alumnus of Leo Baeck College, London. Rabbi Mark Goldsmith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The above was previously published as Torah from Around the World #150